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They Might be Mayors:Tony Ribera


Republican candidate and former San Francisco Police Chief Tony Ribera has made a name for himself on the campaign trail by speaking his mind, with humor and, in most cases, kindness. As a Republican running in a predominantly Democratic town, he’s not expected to attract that many votes. A popular figure as chief, however, Ribera will get some recognition in an eight-way race. That gives him more clout that you might expect by just reading the numbers.
A fan of mass transit, a cop who jokes about his days on the beat in the Haight during the “Summer of Love,” Ribera isn’t the most conservative candidate running. But he’s among the toughest, in words and deeds, as he demonstrates in the following interview. He knows the city and he knows City Hall. Ribera was interviewed in his office at the University of San Francisco, where he teaches criminal justice, on September 23, 2003.
What’s this mayor’s race about?
I think this mayor’s race is about eight years of terrible mismanagement in San Francisco. It’s mismanagement that has created a budget deficit of $350 million. We’ve now created a new budget built on smoke and mirrors where we’ve terribly exaggerated salary savings. We’ve made ridiculous cuts in overtime that will never happen and we’ve cut virtually no programs or no positions. This budget is an absolute joke and it’s a culmination of eight years of ineffectiveness. Do we want to get a grasp on managing our city; where we can set goals, expect results, hold people accountable and hopefully curb the size of our city government?

You grew up here. What’s your fondest, earliest memory of the city?
I think one of the real fun times for me that I always think about are my days at Washington High School and the bell games with Lincoln High School — We played for a bell — the rivalry between Washington and Lincoln. The winner gets a bell.
I lived four blocks away from Washington. Sometimes me and my pals would go over my house for lunch and my mother’d fix us sandwiches. The only time I left the neighborhood was for something really extraordinary. My whole life was in the Richmond District at that time. All my friends were in the Richmond District.
What do you miss? That sort of family, neighborhood stuff?
Yeah. I think there has been a move away from prioritizing families in the city. Some of it just by the natural evolutionary process and the demographics and so forth. But some of the things that bother me is that we’ve moved away from neighborhood schools. The school department in conjunction with the city attorney’s office and the courts has come up with a hare-brained scheme, a diversity index where some of the kids are forced to spend two and a half hours a day on buses going to school. As a result, the parents don’t get involved in the school because they’re too far away. Neighborhood schools I think are a really important thing. When I was at Washington, my Dad knew some of my teachers. He certainly knew the administrators. I knew whatever I did at school, that my Dad would know about it and there was no way I could BS him out of it because he had contact with those folks.
His priorities:
1)City Government Reform
3)Neighborhood Preservation and Development Issues
4)Jobs/Economic Recovery
5)Homelessness/Quality of Life
6)Police Dept. Oversight
7)Muni/Public Transit
8)Housing/Home Ownership
[Ribera says the issues he's labeled 4-8 are issues that will require constant long-term attention over a number of years.]
This is your first run for public office. But you’ve been a public official for a while?
I was chief for four years.
What’s the thing you’re most proud of?
The thing that would get the most bright lights would be that we reduced crime 30 percent when I was chief which is the most in the country. Much more than [former New York City Police Commissioner William] Bratton because I was chief the same time Bratton was, ’92 to ’96.
What’s the biggest mistake?
Oh, shoot. I don’t know if I can pinpoint it to one thing. But when I became police chief I was very politically naïve and because I was politically naïve, I did things that were not consistent with sound management practices.
I had numerous encounters with members of the Board of Supervisors. I tend to be somewhat confrontational when I’m annoyed. And, you know, certainly when you’re dealing with elected officials — when you dealing with anyone for that matter — it makes sense to avoid confrontation as much as possible. It took me a while to learn that. I had the attitude “I’m the chief of police, who the hell do you think you are?’
What is the most important change you’d like to see in San Francisco? Regardless of whether or not you become mayor.
I’d like to see a change of attitude. President Kennedy’s quote about asking not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. I’d like to see some of that here in San Francisco. All these forums, every place we go: “Gimme, gimme, gimme.” All the other candidates say “Sure, sure, sure.” Who’s money are they paying for it with?
I would also like to see the body politic take a more responsible attitude toward government spending. I was very pleased to see that [Board of Supervisors President and mayoral candidate] Matt Gonzalez has said he wants to reduce the size of government which really surprised me. Generally speaking, the candidates are constantly talking about sources of revenue without talking about reasonable cuts in this bloated government that we have, a bloated government that has almost 30,000 city employees right now, a bloated government that has 3,000 individuals making over $100,00 a year, where department heads are all making over $200,000 a year. It’s so top heavy and so bloated, it’s absurd.
What’s the thing you do not what to change about San Francisco?
I do not want to change the fact that it is a compassionate city that welcomes people and accepts people for who they are and has a warmth going back to our Hispanic roots, an attitude of mi casa es su casa. I like that about San Francisco.
Some people have compared this mayoral race to the reality show, Survivor. Tony, you’re on the island, who do you want to vote off?
I think everyone’s feeling a little strain of the campaign right now and I think it’s coming out in the debates where we are getting a little nit-picky at times.
We were at a debate in the Castro the other day — the question was “What do you think of Gavin Newsom?” He wasn’t there. I said my biggest concern about Gavin Newsom is when I campaign among moderates who would be potentially in my constituency, many of them say to me, “You’re a great guy, Tony, I’d love to vote for you but if I don’t vote for Gavin, Ammiano’s going to get elected.” Of course, Ammiano’s sitting right next to me so everybody starts laughing. You know the truth be known, four years ago, I voted for Tom Ammiano for mayor. I’ll tell you the reason why. The run-off was Ammiano and Willie Brown. I voted strictly on the integrity issue. I was a one issue voter.

That’s who you’re going to vote for. Who are you going to vote against?

I don’t dislike any of the candidates. Maybe it would be better if I just identified some of the strong points that I see with other candidates. One thing I like about Angela [Alioto], she loves her police department and she understands it. She’d be a good mayor for the police department. [City Treasurer] Susan [Leal], I think is the only one who has comparable credentials compared to mine as far as management skills. She’s an excellent manager. She’s done a great job with her performance-based budget in the Treasurers’ office. I think Susan is a very good manager. I think Matt Gonzalez is extremely, extremely bright and I think he’s a nice young man. Obviously, he’s extremely left of me. [Supervisor] Tom Ammiano has a great deal of energy. He obviously loves the city. I think he’s honest, I think he wants to do the right thing. Again, he’s very, very liberal. Tom and Angela and Matt are liberal to the point where I don’t think their policies would be good for the city, really. [Supervisor] Gavin [Newsom] is a nice young man. Two things concern me about Gavin. One his inexperience. Two, who is advisors are.
The downtown guys?
Yeah. Those would be my concerns with him.
If I don’t make the run-off, it’s not going to be an easy decision. I think a lot of people out on the avenues would assume I’m going to endorse Gavin because we’re both more moderate. I don’t think that’s a fair assumption. I’m not saying that I won’t. But I certainly haven’t made up my mind that I’m going to do that. And, in terms of friendships, I’m probably closest to Angela of any of the candidates.

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